Based on Matthew 5:1-12
In the last week of November, I had the great privilege of stepping off the bus at the old town-site of Capernaum in Israel and making my way down the rocky bank to the Sea of Galilee. My sandals were quickly off, pant-legs rolled up, and I stepped into that amazing body of water that holds so many of our faith stories. Camera in hand, I took pictures of my feet, my sandals, the sun on the water, my co-pilgrims on the journey. It was sheer delight. Back on the shore, above the archeological dig that was the biblical town of Capernaum, rose a hillside, covered in dry amber-coloured grass. This is the best-guess sight of the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes that Helen read this morning. After playing in the water and finding a few choice pebbles to bring back for my children, I got down to some serious studying.
We’d each been given a notebook called Reflections in the Galilee. The first biblical reflection was on today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew – the Beatitudes. For as long as I’ve been reading the beatitudes, I’ve struggled to understand what they mean. Blessed are they… The Good News Bible doesn’t even use the word `blessed’, but instead uses the word `happy.’ Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn… I think not!
And what does `blessed’ mean anyway? It doesn’t mean, `There, there, don’t worry your pretty little head about anything.’ It doesn’t mean you will feel blessed, or everyone would be scrambling to be poor, weak, and persecuted. That doesn’t happen now does it! So what on earth is Jesus trying to say (for heaven’s sake?)
Well, that morning, I read a fresh perspective on the beatitudes by Palestinian theologian Archbishop Elias Chacour. He writes: “Knowing Aramaic, the language of Jesus, has greatly enriched my understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Because the Bible as we know it is a translation of a translation, we sometimes get a wrong impression. For example, we are accustomed to hearing the Beatitudes expressed passively:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy…. Etc.
“Blessed” is the translation of the word makarioi, used in the Greek New Testament. However, when I look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, I find that the one original word was ashray, from the verb yashar. Ashray does not have this passive quality to it at all. Instead, it means “to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, repent; to become straight or righteous.”
How could I go to a persecuted young man in a Palestinian refugee camp, for instance, and say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Or “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven?” That man would revile me, saying neither I nor my God understood his plight, and he would be right.
When I understand Jesus’ words in the Aramaic, I translate like this:
“Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied. Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.”
To me this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately. I can hear him saying, “Get your hands dirty to build a human society for human beings; otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless.” Christianity is not passive but active, energetic, alive, going beyond despair…
Get up, go ahead, do something, move,” Jesus said to his disciples.
Well, I had never read this passage in this way before, and I will never be able to read it again, without hearing Jesus say, Get up, go ahead, do something, move.”
Later in the day, we stopped to have communion under an olive tree, in a valley, between high rocky cliffs. I read the beatitudes, I read them through the translation of Archbishop Charcour. These are not passive, or pacifying words. They are words of challenge and encouragement. They are Jesus saying, `Do what is in your power to do. It kind of goes back to the Serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
These questions were given to us for reflection and so I invite you to reflect on them too.
What fears do you have that keep you from acting on Jesus’ words?
How does Archbishop Charcour’s translation of the Beatitudes affect your understanding of this passage?
Get up, go ahead, do something, move… What is Jesus calling you to be, to do, with this challenge?
What is Jesus calling us to be and do with this challenge?